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How can Washington build a sustainable state ferries system?

The Walla Walla ferry is docked at the Bremerton ferry terminal under a cloudy sky
Emil Moffatt
The Washington State Ferry system has been hampered by the number of vessels out of service and in need of repairs. This has meant a reduction of service, including the Bremerton-to-Seattle route.

A topic that comes up in a lot of conversations with people who live in Bremerton is the Washington State Ferries system. Many in the city rely on ferries to get back-and-forth across Puget Sound.

An aging fleet and staffing shortages have meant canceled or limited sailings, not just on the Bremerton-Seattle route, but across Western Washington.

A state lawmaker who has vowed to fix the Washington State Ferries System is State Rep. Greg Nance, whose 23rd district includes Bremerton.

Rep. Nance joined KNKX's All Things Considered broadcast on May 16 from the Admiral Theatre in Bremerton.

Click "Listen" above to hear their conversation. A transcript is available below.

State Rep. Greg Nance speaks with KNKX All Things Considered reporter Emil Moffatt during a live interview on May 16, 2024, at the Admiral Theatre in Bremerton, Washington.
Freddy Monares
State Rep. Greg Nance speaks with KNKX All Things Considered reporter Emil Moffatt during a live interview on May 16, 2024, at the Admiral Theatre in Bremerton, Washington.


Note: This transcript is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

KNKX All Things Considered host Emil Moffatt: Something that comes up a lot in conversations with people who live in Bremerton is the state ferry system, getting back-and-forth across Puget Sound. Last year, some 950,000 riders took that Bremerton-to-Seattle crossing but the route has been down to one vessel for some time now. And it's not the only place where there's been struggles surrounding aging vessels and staffing shortages that have led to cancellations and limited sailings.

A state lawmaker who has vowed to fix the Washington State ferry system is state representative Greg Nance, who's 23rd district includes Bremerton, and Greg Nance joins us now at the Admiral Theatre. Thanks so much for being here.

State Rep. Greg Nance: Thank you, Emil. Great to be here.

Moffatt: So let's talk a little bit about the Bremerton-to-Seattle route. Mayor Greg Wheeler says it being down to one ferry, one vessel, has really affected people's livelihoods and their ability to get to appointments to get back-and-forth to Seattle. So how feasible is it? We've seen the the fast ferry come aboard and take some of that relief, how feasible is it to see solutions like that come up, to kind of alleviate some of these issues?

Nance: Yeah, great question. So number one, Mayor Wheeler is right on. We rely on our ferries is how we get to work, it's how we get to school, how we get to medical appointments. And it's a huge source of tourism for our community here in Kitsap. I grew up in Kitsap. And you could set your watch by the ferries growing up. They ran on time! They ran reliably. Today, they do not and our neighbors in Bremerton are feeling the feeling the brunt of this. Since 2021, we've been on a one boat service. We're fortunate here in Kitsap. We have Kitsap Transit, which has operated a very effective fast ferry service, passenger-only ferry. And it's a great example of Kitsap County innovation right here, showing a model for the rest of Puget Sound. The state's dropped the ball, we've got to do better.

Moffatt: And so talk a little bit about what you experienced in the legislature as you've kind of taken this on, you've championed the ferry system. What's the response been from your fellow lawmakers, some of whom might represent districts that are really affected by the ferry? How do you convince them this is needed and beneficial for the whole state?

Nance: Yeah, for too long I think there's been a lot of misinformation about what our ferries are all about. It's an essential service. It's an essential part of our transportation network here in Kitsap. And communities actually, across the state, there are 10 different routes. Every one of these routes services folks that need the service.

And you're right on, politician representing a cattle ranching community in eastern Washington, like a fellow named Representative Tom Dent, he doesn't typically think about the ferries, that's not part of his daily life. He's ridden the boat one time. I made it a personal mission as the newest member of the House representatives, I want to go have a coffee or burger with every single member that I can and share just how important our ferries are. And I learned from Representative Dent, just how important beef is to his community. And hey, lo and behold, let's figure out how do we help beef farmers in Eastern Washington, and how can we get the help of a beef farmer here on the ferry service. And by the end of session, every single Republican actually voted to fund our ferries with 80 million new dollars coming through.

Moffatt: So one problem is the age of this fleet. A lot of the vessels, 30 years old, some you know, 50 years old. There's a process underway to get them electrified, the hybrid electric vehicles, but that's still a few years off. You also have the staffing issues. What are some of the things being done to make sure there's enough staffing for these ferries?

Nance: Yeah, so just looking at data here in 2023, we had 3,500 canceled sailings. Wow. We need 26 vessels to fully operate Washington State Ferries across the fleet. We're down to 15 operational vessels, we're way down where we need to be. And yet over half of those canceled sailings are actually due to staffing shortages. So you really have two different and very, very big challenges that we got to work through. And that's how we're approaching it. We're really aiming to build out stronger pipelines to get young people into the maritime service, to get more veterans from Naval Base Kitsap and Naval Station Everett into our ferry service, and then being strategic about how we acquire and procure and build vessels, because we need help and we need it yesterday.

Moffatt: Yeah, and so as far as the ridership goes, we've seen it climbing back up since the depths of the pandemic, but it's still well below what we saw in 2019. How do you as a lawmaker, look at those numbers, those ridership numbers and figure out what demand is actually there for this service?

Nance: Yeah, if we had reliable service you could really count on, there are so many more trips I think folks would make. I've met lots of neighbors who have to drive around now to make sure I'm on time for that medical appointment, or I have a big presentation at work, I've got to drive around. Or I have a flight, I'm going to go into the city the night before. That absolutely impacts our ridership numbers. And of course, we rely on farebox recovery for a big portion of the operating budget of the ferry. So it's a big challenge, because of the lack of reliability, we're collecting less revenue, now we have less revenue to invest in the system. And so we've got to do better. And part of my message is the state's got to step up. We also have to call on Congress to help us bridge the gap here, too, and provide the funds to get this fleet back on its feet.

Moffatt: And so as we go forward, what are some of the numbers that you're looking at to measure the progress of how well the ferry system is recovering?

Nance: Yeah, so one, one piece of really good news, and actually why I'm optimistic about all this, we have new leadership at WSF. For the first time, in recent memory, we actually have a career mariner, who's leading the fleet, which that's a really big deal. I believe you need good leadership to solve tough problems to rally folks together, we have 1,800 really hard working WSF crew, that now can look to a leader that really knows how to run a marine fleet. That's a big deal for us. So when we look at, we're gonna look not only at the on time performance percentages, we're also looking at, we're $240 million behind on deferred maintenance for these older vessels that are getting older every day. We need to chip away at that. And the legislature, part of my job is to get the funds, and then help to prioritize that we have oversight and accountability. And then we're taking good care of the vessels we do have, and fast tracking is many new vessels as we can. Build the, lease them, rent them, whatever. Get boats on the water to get neighbors to work to school to the doctor.

Moffatt: And you are running for reelection this November, and you've drawn a few competitors. At the top of your website it says "fix our ferries." Why has this become such a central part of of your time in office?

Nance: Yeah, I'm a lifelong ferry rider, I grew up here and ferries represent connection. They represent the togetherness that that we're so blessed to have in our community. It's also how my family put bread on the table and sent three kids to college. It's a big deal for our neighbors here in Kitsap. And folks across the state we need we folks stepping up for the ferries. And I feel really blessed that I have that opportunity on the House Transportation Committee to work hard at it.

And I will tell you, there's a Republican in the field who thinks that maybe I'm too liberal for this and there's two Democrats who think I'm too conservative on this, but I really just want to solve problems. I'll work with anybody I can to help solve the problem and to fix our ferries.

Moffatt: Greg Nance, thanks so much for joining us here at the admiral Theatre in Bremerton.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at